Here’s an important lesson I recently learned–when you’re going to a writer’s conference, read the books written by the authors who will be leading workshops and teaching classes. Otherwise you might miss out.
This summer, I went to the Midwest Writer’s Workshop in Muncie at Ball State University and I did not read Cathy Day’s book, The Circus in Winter, before hand. So I did not realize what a talented writer I had right there, in the same building, kindly standing at the information table and generally being incredibly helpful and approachable. Alas, lesson learned.
The Circus in Winter reminds you that Indiana is an interesting place, too. Not everything cool and exciting happens in other parts of the country. The book is a collection of short stories about the fictional town of Lima, Indiana–the town where the Great Portman Circus chooses to winter. It just happens that the author, Cathy Day, grew up in Peru, Indiana, which was once the winter headquarters for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. As Day writes in the epilogue, her own uncle was, in fact, killed by a bull elephant, like one of the central characters in the story.
Like most kids from what seem to be small, boring Midwestern towns, it never really occurred to Day that there was something interesting about Peru. Sometimes you learn to take the particular weirdness of your own town–that it’s populated by retired circus people–for granted. I’m very glad that in the end, she decided there might be some stories there.
So who wouldn’t be kind of seduced by the lure of a circus tale? The great thing about these stories is that they are also beautifully written. They’re arranged in a loose chronological order, starting with Wallace Porter and his decision to buy a circus and bring it to his hometown for the winter. The characters recur across the stories, ending four generations later with a fictional daughter who gets away from Lima and then finds herself drawn back.
The stories vary in tone and style. “The Jungle Goolah Boy” is told entirely in fictionalized archival material, which is appropriate to the subject of a former slave who becomes a part of the circus. “Winnesaw” is a heart-breaking story about what happens when the river next to the winter grounds of the circus floods. The stories stand alone, but read together, they create a whole world and life for the town.
I am a sucker for stories about place, and in the end, that’s what The Circus in Winter is about. The circus, sure, but mostly the town. The place. I can’t say it any better than Cathy Day does in the final story in the book.
“I like to throw parties for my latest circus family. We have badminton tournaments in the front yard, drinks on the long porch, and late inot the night, we tell stories about how we got here–the towns we left, the schools that exploited us, the lovers we abandoned or who abandoned us…It’s taken me a long time to figure out one very simple thing: The world is made up of hometowns. It’s just as hard to leave a city block in Brooklyn or a suburb of Chicago as it is to leave a small town in Indiana. And just because it was hard to leave Linden Avenue in Flatbush or the Naperville city limits or Lima doesn’t mean you can’t ever go back. I wish I knew where my mother was so I could tell her that.
“My mother always told me, Marry yourself first, Jenny. And I did. She also said, When you leave, don’t look back. And I tried not to, but for some reason this nowhere place keeps talking to me anyway. Maybe every town in America transmits that radio signal, and on certain nights when the weather and the frequency are just right, we can all hear our hometowns talking softly to us in the back of our dreams.”
If reading is not your thing, The Circus in Winter has also been made into a musical, described as “A uniquely American musical about love, loss, triumph and a five-tone elephant.” That about sums it up. You can check out the Facebook page for the musical, here.